Proposed NSW disaster authority would have ‘virtually unfettered’ land-clearing powers, environment groups say

Conservation groups have also condemned the legislation, with National Parks Association ‘extremely alarmed’

A proposed new natural disaster authority in New South Wales would have “virtually unfettered” powers to overturn environmental protections and could result in the clearing of national parks, crossbench MPs and environment groups have warned.

The state’s planning minister, Anthony Roberts, introduced a bill to parliament on Monday to create a “Reconstruction Authority” dedicated to disaster preparedness, recovery and reconstruction.

He said the authority was informed by the structure of the Queensland Reconstruction Authority, which was established after consecutive natural disasters in that state in the summer of 2010-11.

But the NSW Greens, the outgoing independent MLC Justin Field and two environment groups say the legislation, set to be debated in the upper house on Wednesday evening, would grant “unprecedented” powers for clearing of land.

“The powers in this bill are unprecedented, giving the planning minister the sole power to clear almost any parcel of land regardless of its environmental value,” said the Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann.

She said the party recognised the need to move quickly to keep communities safe in the face of more frequent and extreme weather events.

But the bill was an “overreach” because it granted authority to clear threatened species habitat and endangered ecosystems without oversight from the state’s environment minister.

“In the hands of the wrong minister these powers could be used to push through totally inappropriate development with no ability for the community to object,” she said.

“It’s outrageous that the environment minister has no powers in this bill.”

The authority would be a new agency, with its own chief executive, and would have powers to respond to unfolding disasters as well as take action to avoid or mitigate future disasters.

It would work closely with emergency services but would be subject to the control and direction of the minister for planning.

Opposition planning spokesperson Paul Scully said while Labor would be supporting the bill, it would also be making changes to “improve the governance, transparency and oversight” of the new authority.

“Labor considers it more than appropriate that strong powers provided to an independent authority must also require strong and ongoing oversight by the parliament,” he said.

“While there is often a need to speed up decision-making and process in the event of a natural disasters… transferring powers in the interests of speed, flexibility and providing an agile response, this approach should be time limited and it should have a post-use review so that we can learn from the experiences and responses to each natural disaster.”

Labor will seek to make changes including requirements to gazette certain decisions and impose strict time limitations and reviews following disasters.

The National Parks Association of NSW has contacted the environment minister, James Griffin, to express its concern that the bill would allow the new agency to override environmental and protected areas (PAs) legislation where it perceived a risk.

“It is not unreasonable to imagine the proposed authority forming the view that national parks are quite flammable, then deciding that an appropriate mitigation might be to clear 200m or wider Asset Protections Zones around all (protected areas). Or that fire trails need to be constructed on every ridge in every national park,” the association wrote.

The association is urging the government to amend the bill to exclude protected areas including national parks.

“The National Parks Association of NSW is extremely alarmed by the NSW government’s Reconstruction Authority bill,” the association’s chief executive, Gary Dunnett, said.

“The bill grants the proposed authority virtually unfettered powers to overturn all forms of protection against inappropriate development in NSW – including in our most environmentally sensitive areas such as national parks and threatened species habitat.”

The chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, Jacqui Mumford, questioned why the bill was being pushed through without consultation in the last week of parliament.

“The government is using the disaster in Lismore as cover for opening national parks up for further destruction,” she said.

“National parks should be removed from the purview of this bill, including them is gross overreach.”

The NSW opposition has supported the creation of a reconstruction authority, which has been championed by Lismore MP, Janelle Saffin.

The party has moved a series of amendments to improve the governance, transparency, and oversight arrangements of the proposed agency.

“Since day one I have advocated for a NSW Reconstruction Authority modelled on the successful QLD Reconstruction Authority – an overarching agency to guide preparedness, response, recovery, reconstruction, mitigation and transformational adaptation,” Saffin said.

Independent MLC Field said the bill as drafted granted “extraordinary emergency powers with very limited oversight and transparency mechanisms” and was reliant on future governments using those powers “responsibly and in the public interest”.

“Emergency power can not replace the need for long-term climate resilience planning that is done in genuine consultation with communities,” he said.

Comment has been sought from Roberts.

Contributors

Lisa Cox and Tamsin Rose

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